By Ray O’Hanlon
Full reconciliation in Northern Ireland will take generations to achieve, but the U.S. must remain involved in the efforts to achieve it, former Sen. George Mitchell told a gathering at Hunter College in Manhattan last week.
Speaking just a week before the second anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Mitchell, who says he will not go back to the North to aid the stalled peace process, told his rapt audience that while it had been hard to secure the accord, it would be even more difficult to get it implemented.
Speaking to reporters Thursday after his public lecture, "Working Toward Peace in Northern Ireland," Mitchell said that it would not be a negative development if some other U.S. envoy traveled to the North in his footsteps.
"But at some point the parties have to work it out themselves," the former Senate majority leader said in reference to Northern Ireland’s political leaders.
Mitchell said that there was a danger that if he was to return to the North, the parties would be tempted not to work it out because they would feel that there was "always" another round" of talk to wait for.
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"Nobody has asked me to go back, nor should they," he said. "But, yes, Northern Ireland should remain a frontburner foreign policy issue for the U.S. I hope the next president will pursue peace with the same vision and impartiality as Bill Clinton."
Mitchell said during his address that the argument in Northern Ireland is now about whose responsibility it is to take the next step. But he remained hopeful. He said that the negotiations leading up to the GFA were the most difficult but most rewarding part of his public life.
"I think there will be a peace, a measure of political stability, but genuine reconciliation will take a long time," he said. "This is a highly segregated and deeply divided society."
Mitchell indicated in response to a question from the audience that a long time, in his view, could mean generations.
Mitchell said that his fondest hope is that in his lifetime the so-called "peace wall" in Belfast would be torn down. Despite its name, the wall is more a symbol of division than peace.
Mitchell said he felt the present U.S. role in the North was primarily one of encouragement and support for trade and investment.
Asked if he thought the peace would hold, Mitchell replied, "We can’t establish a standard so high that no society can meet." Northern Ireland, he believed, had been scarred by horrible violence.
"So let’s not say that if there’s any violence there is no peace," he said.
Mitchell indicated his view that the situation in the North was now much better in relative terms. Since 1994, he said, there had been a sharp decline in violence with the exception of punishment shootings. But the number of killed was "way down."
The cease-fires, he said, are largely holding, which reflected the desire of most to move the peace process forward.
"The current uneasy state of peace will continue. Over time, this will lead to progress and eventual reconciliation," he said.
Asked to comment on speculation that he might be Al Gore’s choice for vice-president on this year’s Democratic ticket, the former senator from Maine said he is "not considering" the vice-presidency.
"I think it’s highly unlikely to happen. Others offer a more direct electoral advantage," he said.
Mitchell expressed the view that the current impasse in the peace process was not entirely due to the problem over paramilitary arms decommissioning. Asked if the British government had moved too hastily to suspend the North power-sharing Executive, Mitchell said he preferred not to comment.
Mitchell, who was presented with an honorary degree by Hunter College, was the first speaker in the Hunter College Presidential Public Leadership Program.